Nauseating, I know. But the pollsters are out in force today, testing the pulse of Americans – those willing to sit on the phone and answer survey questions, at least – for the likelihood of a second Obama term. Pew and Quinnipiac both have polling data released today, both showing roughly the same thing, but with remarkably different editorial conclusions.

Pew has a poll showing that less than fifty percent of the public would like to see the president elected to a second term, but points out that previous presidents have faired little better. Quinnipiac, for its part, has a poll showing that about fifty percent believes the president does not “deserve” a second term. Note that this is not what the question asked, exactly, its just what the editor chose to use in the summary. They point out that this is his lowest number since they’ve been tracking it and also that he loses by a slim margin to an Unnamed Republican Candidate.

So the numbers are around fifty percent with almost two years left to decide. My expert opinion is that “these numbers are likely to change.”

Every major spike in oil prices brings with it a major spike in bullshit discussions of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Right on queue, here’s President Obama:

Obama: Ready To Tap Oil Reserve If Needed : NPR.

Trouble is: there’s about 600 million barrels of oil in the SPR and we use about 20 million a day. So, that gives us about a month’s supply, after which time, we won’t have any more reserves. Filling it back up again will require us to – oh yeah! – buy more. So even if the cost of oil goes down slightly as a result of us relying on the SPR, it goes right back up again when we need to fill it up.. unless of course you’d like to go without?

… I’m trying to figure out exactly how to react to this headline, “Obama’s Approval Rating on Deficit Sinks to New Low.”

The headline isn’t wrong: President Obama’s approval rating on the budget deficit has fallen. On the other hand, nearly every other trend line goes up. The Gallup article in question says as much, as does another poll released today from Zogby. So, which is the story? Technically, I suppose, if all other metrics are trending up at a consistent rate, that’s not news: he’s been doing better since the SOTU. Not news, that is, if you think in terms of moment-to-moment politics.

But in terms of the overall two-year average, its the numbers that are improving that are the news: his approval ratings hit the skids almost immediately from taking office. That the general trend is in the opposite direction seems more relevant when you look at the whole picture.

I don’t really think poll numbers are relevant, except to the extent that they get used as cudgels in political fights. Unfortunately, everything these days is a political fight – right down to ICBM treaties with Russia – so the political damage of skewed headlines cannot be entirely discounted. But, they got my dumb ass to click on the link, so I suppose if the goal was CTR and not FYI, that’s game-set-match.

Its a popular political tactic: Politician A gets elected on the promise of cutting spending and the ever popular political bitch, “waste, fraud and abuse” out of the system. Rochester, Monroe County, New York State and the Federal government all have lots of folks elected on just such a promise. That includes, of course, our current president.

And as popular as that campaign tactic is, it is no surprise that an equally attractive tactic is “holding them accountable”: insist that they tell you what exactly it is that they plan to cut out of the budget that will fulfill their campaign promises. Of course, more often than not, they have no answers. And the answers they do have generally involve cutting programs that don’t have anything to do with them or more importantly their constituents. Grossly irresponsible, isn’t it?

But hold on: what did you expect Politician A to say, exactly?

Two very interesting polls came to my attention today: the first is a national poll by Gallup where Americans express their support for program cuts. Social Security? Nope. Education? Nope. So what do they support? Cutting foreign aid, of course. The one thing on the list that doesn’t affect Americans and the only single budget cut that is supported by a majority of Americans. The second poll is a Quinnipiac University poll on New York State, where Empire State’ers support cutting state worker pay and pensions, but nothing else.

In short, we’re not up for making any sacrifices at all, at least according to polls. There is no answer to the question “what would you like to see cut” that won’t either piss off or at least alienate a significant part of the electorate. If that’s the case, then why are we messing around, electing politicians to cut things we don’t want cut?

Interesting and more than a little unsettling information from this article on TheRegister.com. Namely, that WiliLeaks.org may have actively sought out – and found – supposedly secret documents on P2P sites like Limewire. The evidence seems a bit circumstantial, but it does raise a few interesting questions:

The first is: why the hell are there secret government documents online and where do I get mine? Limewire, apparently. Considering the fact that I can’t get a decent-quality bootleg of Genesis on Limewire, I’m frankly put-out that I could get the plans to Marine One, the president’s helicopter, which I have utterly no use for.

There are a large number of security vulnerabilities to be discussed, here, and probably more than I’m aware of. But they’re all bad news because this is a huge breach of security from the government that not only invented the frickin’ Internet, but also invented public key encryption and a raft of other security features in common and entirely successful use on that same Internet.

But here’s another interesting question: if WikiLeaks did in fact search out and find secret government documents on P2P sites, is that even a crime? We can argue about shield laws, journalism and whistleblowers till the cows come home. But none of that is relevant in this case, because the crime of posting the stuff in a public forum was not committed by either a whistleblower or a journalist. Moreover, P2P is not a crime by itself: it’s just sharing information in a public forum. And if it’s a public forum, then the burden of illegality is on those who originally posted the items, intentionally or otherwise.

Put it another way: it’s a long-ago defunct pass-time, but they used to have bootleg conventions at the Village Gate all the time. Guys would come from all over to buy, sell and trade recordings of musicians performing live or of unreleased material. It is certainly a crime to record those musicians without their consent, but once the material is out there, it’s out there. Its public. And you can openly trade it with a bunch of other athletically-challenged nerds in the middle of a dusty former factory with clothslines for walls.

This is one worth watching. You can bet I will be! Stay tuned.

Dilan Ratigan is on MSNBC right now, puzzling over the recent developments in North Korea, where Bill Clinton has arrived to negotiate the release of the two journalists who have been trapped there. They’re trying to get to the motivation of the North Koreans; to decide what reason they have to talk to Bill Clinton about this issue where they will not speak with the State Department or any other branch of the current administration.

Former President Bill Clinton in North Korea to try to free U.S. journalists.

Allow me to point out the painfully obvious: Hillary Clinton declared that the North Korean government was acting like a spoiled child. In response, the North Korean government called her a “funny girl.” Now, the NKs have decided to bypass the Secretary of State to the United States of America for…. her husband.

Seriously? Is it really that diffiicult to ferret out the motivation? I would have thought it obvious..

Having said that, Bill Clinton is absolutely right to go. Sexist international slam-fests aside, if the North Koreans are willing to speak with him and get those poor women released from prison, it’s all worth it. To the North Koreans, this is a way to treat the Sec. State like a bitch; to the United States, this is an opportunity to save two lives simply by rolling through some pointlessly sexist and insulting game-playing. At the end of the day, North Korea is less two prisoners and Hillary Clinton is still… the Secretary of State to the United States of America.

HuffPo is reporting that AP sources say the Senate Finance Committee is planning on dropping the public option from the Senate bill. Of course, the Senate and House bills need to be reconciled before making it to the president. Even if the reporting is accurate, its not quite the end.

But the Senate generally gets its way, so this is a major obstacle.

I’ve been blogging for at least five years, now. I’ve been doing so right along with a lot of my other Lefty buddies, commenting on and applauding a lot of the same news sources, such as Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and what has become the entire MSNBC lineup. And right along with Bill Mahar, too. I thought I understood what they were saying when we all complained about George Bush, but in recent months, I’ve begun to doubt that.

In recent months, since the Obama Administration took the White House, Progressive talking heads have been consistently pushing on a number of issues. Gays in the military, Guantanamo, the stimulus package and many others. And the common refrain has been some variation of, “with the stroke of a pen, President Obama could end all this…”

Perhaps I’ve lost my mind, but I could have sworn that one of the things we didn’t like about George Bush was… his use of executive orders and signing statements to bypass the will of the Congress? Did I totally misread that? Because now that we have our man in the White House, we want him to employ precisely the same tactics that I recall people decrying as circumventing the U.S. Constitution. And beyond that apparent contradiction, there are a number of problems with executive overrides of this type which are also worth mentioning.

The first should be obvious: if we can turn over all of Bush’s executive hanky-panky this easily, so too can the next president “correct” the Obama Administration. I may be confused about what we Lefties were talking about a few years ago, but I remember my U.S. History and Government class, and this is definitely not what the Founders had in mind. We are not meant to be a cult of personality like Saddam’s Iraq or Kim’s North Korea. Our laws are not meant to be subject to the whims of the most powerful ape in the room. We may like things fast in our modern world, but some things are better left up to the stodgy, old, slow and yes, painfully prejudiced and ignorant Congress.

Secondly, if the president does not get the work done through Congress, Congress can always pass a law that circumnavigates his circumnavigation. Potentially, they can do so in a way that overrides the veto. Remember how Congress’ slowness was a bad thing? Well, with a stroke of a pen, you’ll be counting on it.

Third, in some cases, it’s really not that simple anyway. The president is sitting on a prison in Guantanamo filled with people who have been wrongly imprisoned. People whose basic human rights have been violated, which is a crime which our Constitution is particularly well-suited to prosecute… harshly. In fact, history buffs will know that the entire point of the Constitution is precisely that.

The president cannot simply wave his pen and declare “Do-over!” He cannot free Gitmo detainees without complications. And he certainly cannot do that by, once again, short-circuiting the legal process. The only legally justifiable means of releasing the Guantanamo detainees is by putting them on trial, but since most of the evidence against even those guilty of actual crimes against the United States was obtained via torture and is therefore not admissible, that means both the guilty and the innocent would be set completely free.

The CIA is another sticky wicket. The good and bad news about stable democracies is that the institutions of government – from the Department of Agriculture to the military to the CIA – maintain contiguous operation beyond presidential terms. The Department of the Interior does not suddenly loose all it’s staff and get repopulated every time a new president takes the oath, though it came close in the Bush Administration. It is this contiguous institutionalization of government that provides the democratic stability we enjoy as Americans, not the voting part. There is even an argument to be made that this bureaucratic stability is what eventually ground the Bush Administration down in the end: whistleblowers throughout the government leaked the documents and instigated the investigations that mired the Bushies down for the past three or four years.

But in the case of the CIA, that also means there are bodies buried deep in the vaults of that secret agency that no president has probably ever known about. And even if presidents do, we the public don’t. Again, untangling this web, especially where torture has been used, is not as simple as people seem to think it is. And as we’ve learned from the Bush Administration, the leadership can only push agencies just so far before they earn the ire of career bureaucrats who will outlast them. I’m quite certain that, as a Constitutional law professor, President Barack Obama is quite well aware of the problem torture presents. I’m quite certain that he’s interested in removing the stain of torture from our government – not out of ideological zeal, but out of fidelity to the Constitution he spent his life studying. But this, like much of the damage done by the Bush Administration, is going to take time to put right.

Of course, I understand that we need people to push issues. Just because a president with a D next to his name gets elected does not mean that the things we need done will get done. There has to be pressure on politicians if anything is to be accomplished, especially presidents; there needs to be a loyal opposition, a position for which the Republicans are ill-equipped these days. But we need to be cautious that, in pushing for small changes, we don’t arrive at unforeseen and lamentable large changes. Pressure is one thing, but irresponsibility is quite another.

Everybody needs a little time away,”
I heard her say,
“from each other…”

So, Governor Mark Sanford has decided it would be best to go missing for a while and it seems clear that the Governor’s family and staff are not at all worried. Neither does this seem to be a new thing for the Governor: sneaking away from his security duty. I certainly hope the Governor is as safe as the impression we are left with.

But hoping is hardly enough for the people of South Carolina. I think it should go without saying to anyone over the age of sixteen that their whereabouts are important to those who depend on them; you hardly need to be a governor for this to be true.

So does this type of behavior come back to haunt Governor Sanford in 2011? I think it should have to. Presidents don’t really have the option to simply slip past their security details, of course. But if Americans are willing to give a second thought to a septuagenarian president out of concern for his health, I’d say it’s fair to wonder about the sense of responsibility of a chief executive of a state who skates on his responsibilities.

TalkingPointsMemo.com’s Sunday roundup is a great one this week, but I wanted to flag out one specific side of the issue of the president’s response to Iran: ownership.

Beyond the politics of the last thirty years of Iranian/American relations, American involvement in foreign affairs tends to suck all the oxygen out of the room for all other parties. Once it becomes a reality that the United States has decided to get involved in an issue, even the least interested parties tends to suddenly shift their focus to us rather than to the issue at hand.

So, once we own the Iranian revolution, what do we do next? Especially since even the most reform-minded Iranians is completely disinterested in our involvement? Do we send troops? Do we impose sanctions that will inevitably hurt the people we supposedly support more than the leadership? Do we fire a bunch of missiles and act like nothing happened? Or how about another toothless UN resolution?

Apart from using this issue to call the Democratic president a coward to score parochial points, I’m not seeing much in the way of ideas on this issue from the Right.

I’m no expert in Iranian politics, but Friday looks like it could be really interesting. There have been many rumblings over the last month that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s chances of getting reelected were getting slim and now it looks like he’s starting to get desperate.

Experts I have read have suggested that really no president of Iran since the Revolution has ever had much to worry about in elections, suggesting that perhaps Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s problems are a reflection of the ruling clergy’s opinion of him more so than the people’s. And though it would pain him to do it, I am sure, Ahmadinejad might consider taking a queue from the Republican Party’s recent history and recognize that denying economic problems won’t con anyone.

Meanwhile, there are some in the States who are suggesting that Barack Obama’s election to the White House may have something to do with this and the elections in Lebanon. Well certainly, it can’t hurt that we’ve deposed a shit-talking cowboy and elected an intellectual man of peace with an Arab name. It’s just one less talking point. But to suggest Obama’s presence has altered the geography of Lebanese politics – to say nothing of Iranian – is just narcissistic. No, the recent run-in with Israel doubtless had an impact in Lebanon and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust-denying, taunting non-diplomacy has clearly had it’s own.

Following on from my previous post about the Student Loan Corporation email I got this morning, it looks like the plan President Obama is proposing is basically to eliminate a subsidy system for private loan corporations that the government has been running for the last fifty years. This WaPo op-ed does a great job of laying out the history.

In short, the government has been insuring low-interest student loans for all this time by basically guaranteeing profits for private banks like Citi Corp who give out those loans. Its a classic Frankenstein Washington program where those who insist on free market rules and those who insist on government assistance get together and insure that neither happens. The Obama plan eliminates the cost of maintaining this facade by letting the Department of Education provide the loans through Treasury.

How much will tax payers save because of this new plan, if adopted? Estimates put that number between $40 and $100 billion annually.

Citi’s email is, typically, effusive with unsupported “facts” about how this will negatively impact both the government’s bottom line and consumers. The claim that this new plan will increase the federal deficit “substantially” is unsubstantiated as yet: there’s no concrete plan that I can find on how the loans will be doled out. Logically, if we can afford multi-trillion dollar bailouts to banks like Citi, I’m sure we can handle a few student loans. The word “substantial” is subjective and relative. Meanwhile as a matter of bookkeeping, since student loans can last for decades without defaulting, they are a relatively stable investment. At the risk of recalling the Subprime problem, student loans can be handled as assets, not debts.

Their claim that this is an anti-choice plan presupposes that those of us who go to college are really in control of where we get loans from. In reality, the student loan game is a rigged one, just like health care. The word “choice” is a double entendre: it sounds like the choice is yours, but the choice is really made by corporations and large institutions – colleges or hospitals, depending on the example.

Citi lists a number of advantages of student loans that it claims are the result of competition, such as default prevention services, education and web access. It is debatable whether web access is an advantage or an inevitability, but default protection and education will surely both continue under the new plan. The problem with this entire line of argument, though, is that if there’s no risk then there’s no real competition. The current system is not a free market system and so the entire argument breaks down right there.